Turning your passion into a thriving business, with textile brand MINNA’s Founder, Sara Berks
Joining me on today’s episode is Sara Berks, Founder of MINNA.
MINNA is a queer led home textile brand collaborating with master artisans in Latin America to make soft things for every room in your home.
In this episode we’re chatting about how Sara’s journey to find herself evolved into a full blown biz, why she decided to pull back on the wholesale side of her business and how she finds artisan partners all around the world to bring her ideas to life.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Sure, well, my name is Sara Berks, I am the founder and creative director of Minna were an ethically handmade home textile brand, collaborate with partisan groups in Latin America to produce basically anything soft and cozy for your home. Oh heaven love that. Where does your story start? What was happening in your life that was getting you interested in bringing this to reality? Yeah, I kind of stumbled into textiles oddly prior to starting minute, I was working in digital design and branding. I was at various agencies designing websites, sometimes e commerce, sometimes more like educational or like for museums and was fairly burnt out from that world and just left feeling really uninspired and just fried generally and not feeling creative and 2013 I decided to quit my job.
00:04:57Edit My dad was really freaked out about that and just to start freelancing and during that time I fell into weaving um I got really, really into learning how to weave, learning about every weaving technique around the world and started traveling, went to Mexico and then men that kind of came to be, there was an evolution that sells Yeah, I wasn't like oh I'm quitting my job to start a business, it was quitting my job to kind of find myself. And then the business came out of that. When you say weaving, do you mean like I'm thinking I'm imagining like you weaving a carpet like on those huge looming kind of machines? What do you mean when you say weaving? Yeah, that's a great question. Well I was really into tapestry weaving so I had basically taking a picture frame and broken it and then like warped it like a small tapestry loom and then I also took a couple classes on learning floor looms and that sort of thing.
00:06:06Edit But I was not weaving a carpet. I did take a workshop in Mexico where I learned how to do rug weaving, which is one of the techniques that we still use. But the only carpet that I made was like a two by two square, but it was amazing. So you go to Mexico, you're kind of like enjoying this process of weaving, you're just taking some time away from, you know the corporate world, what gets you start thinking about like, oh I'm actually going to create this into a business. Was there like a light bulb moment where you thought, oh I could actually make money from this? There wasn't really a lightbulb moment to be honest. I so I had started weaving right and was I was selling these pieces like one of a kind pieces through instagram and selling them to a couple stores and getting a few commissions and then I was like, you know, this is really amazing, like I really love this, but I don't want to support myself off of my art and I went to design school, I was a designer.
00:07:15Edit So designing products, woven products felt like the iteration of like merging creative artistic brain with like, you know, business design, functional brain. So I just kind of set out to explore that and see what was possible. So there was the like, you know, the pieces that I was making and then a couple years later the artisan made collection came to be and that was very small at the time, it was about 12 pieces. Okay. Was that out of kind of the evolution of being like, you know, this isn't scalable, this is a lot of my time going into creating these pieces versus being able to like grow and do more? I think it was both, it was like, I can't, we've all day every day and actually support myself in the capacity that I would want and also I wanted to make bigger things, like I wanted to make rugs, I wanted to make blankets, and like, the thought of me weaving a blanket, it was like, someone else knows how to do this better than me.
00:08:24Edit Um and I can't actually I don't have the capacity to do that, right? Yeah. And so while all this is happening, you know, it's kind of evolving, it's just becoming a business and and gaining traction, it sounds like what's happening on the community side of things like how are you finding people who were interested in what you were doing and, you know, purchasing from you? Well, this was like 2013, when there wasn't really an algorithm to instagram yet. So it was actually fairly, I mean it was fairly easy to build a community that way. I could use a hashtag and actually get like new followers and like gain interest in that way. So I I was able to garner a bit of a following through like, my handmade pieces, and then by the time I was starting to travel and work on the artisan made pieces, there was already an interest and also branding and website design was what I did. So it was what I knew how to do, I knew how to design a website and build a brand that could gain a following.
00:09:34Edit Does that kind of also mean that in the beginning then you weren't having to outlay a lot of capital into those kinds of things, which can be quite expensive if you're needing to hire a freelancer or an agency, is that right? Yeah, I didn't have to spend anything on web design or branding. I mean all of what was being spent was product development, Are you able to share kind of what capital it did take to get started when you were kind of realizing, yep, okay, I'm going to need to outsource some of the production buying inventory to have on my store and that kind of thing. Yeah, so the first year I would say is a little bit muddy because it was the kind of thing where I was like, okay, we're going to launch this small collection and then suddenly, you know, things kept growing and also to clarify when I was first starting, I was still freelancing, so I would work about nine months out of the year to support myself and I didn't take a dime from the business actually until like the 4th year.
00:10:43Edit So I guess you could say like my salary was what was just like completely reinvested back in. Um so I had a little bit of savings um and because I was supporting myself, anything that a sale made just went right back into re investing and buying more inventory and traveling because at that point I was also traveling quite a bit too, you know, make the connections and meet the artisans that we were working with, How did you find the people that you were working with in in those different countries? So in Mexico Mexico is like a little bit different compared to how I work everywhere else. Mostly because those connections were really, really personal. At first when I had gone there the first time I was going to take a workshop on rug weaving and natural dyes and that trip I met About three families that are still like my closest collaborators.
00:11:44Edit And then through that I was just doing a ton of research. I wanted to learn all of the techniques that we were doing. I wanted to know which group, which we even groups were interested in innovation and interested in more contemporary product design and the artisan sectors is fairly small. So once you kind of know somebody, they're like, oh yeah, you should meet this person and then you should meet this person. And it was really kind of once, you know someone that was like a domino effect, all those doors opened up and you were like immersed in that world of artisan creators. I love that. That's so cool. Yeah. Was there a point, you know, a few years in when you started to realize, okay, it actually has come to life the way that I envisioned it and it's like the tipping point where it sort of felt like things are just constantly growing and gaining momentum. Yeah, it's funny because I kind of, I feel like there's been a couple tipping points where I'm like, oh we're doing this now, like better, like put my real shoes on or something like that, just like things just kind of keep coming.
00:12:58Edit I'm trying to think of like when that was where it like the past year has felt like a tipping point, I think when we joined a showroom for wholesale that really kind of pushed some of those relationships that we already had forward in a different way and we're finding customers in that capacity. We've actually since shifted away from wholesale which is like our kind of like our 2021 the new roadmap. Yeah, that's what I was looking for, right? So so in the beginning you were doing the wholesale, you had the instagram, firing, everything was starting to really flourish when you fast forward to, you know, today or last year, 2020 kind of time, What's been the biggest driver for growth at these times? Like in the modern kind of sense of social media landscape and not having that wholesale arm.
00:13:59Edit Yeah, so Well 2020 was obviously a freak show of a year but we had gone into the year thinking by the end of the year we would be winding down our wholesale program maintaining some key accounts with like specific retailers that we thought were good brand alignment. So It felt kind of impossible to really shift our business model and that way because it was essentially wholesale was like 65% of the business. Um but I had always wanted to get away from wholesale because operate more creatively, really focus on our direct customer, get to know our direct customer better, and then Covid happened and kind of overnight our business model flipped, we a lot of our wholesale stores like canceled orders or there'll be shuttered, so they stopped ordering and then our online business just really kind of exploded.
00:15:04Edit And I think that's like both, like we were ready for that, like we were ready to like focus our energy on our e commerce. Um that was like the plan for the year anyways, but then, you know, everyone was home, they wanted to improve their homes, they wanted to like make their house as cozy as possible. And I think any consumer brand that is in the home space is doing okay, they can keep up producing the goods, right? Did any of your production get affected with the pandemic? Yeah, interests. So, right, like, right, when shutdown happened, we had just delivered our spring summer collection, and we usually order immediately after, but there was kind of this moment where we were like, oh God, like what's going to happen? How do we kind of keep everybody working?
00:16:07Edit So there was like two things that happened, I was panicked that we weren't going to be able to keep the weavers weaving or working. So we started making masks and that was at first more of like a how do we keep production going? So we can keep everybody employed. Um, and then things got so busy that it didn't actually matter, we were able to keep everybody working, but we were having a lot of issues getting materials because a lot of the factories were closing so it couldn't get the yarns and the threads that we needed, there's a lot of transportation slowdowns or shut down so we couldn't get if we could get the material, we couldn't get it to the artisan groups, we've been able to navigate it. Okay, it's just there's there's been some slowdowns almost everywhere. Mm Yeah, I bet it seems like it's affected so many different layers of like supply chain and the logistics and storage, all that kind of thing. So with your marketing, is your instagram channel still what drives a lot of that growth for you or is it different owned channels that you have?
00:17:18Edit It's a mix for sure. So I hired my first marketing manager in october which has been really amazing because prior to that it was kind of more like free form approach and now we have someone who like really knows what she's doing and like is focusing on the different channels, so instagram like Yes, it's definitely where we, we like make sure that our content is good and we're posting there every day and all of that, but building our email list is super important and we're exploring other types of alignments and we see that like the key wholesale accounts that we kept our essentially marketing opportunities because it's some of the retailers are larger. We are able to, you know, be exposed to customers that wouldn't normally find us. Mm And when you say other alignments, do you mean other like credible wholesale accounts or does that mean something else?
00:18:22Edit Yeah. Like other brands, like other retailers and other brands. So like we've designed a collection for Nordstrom and for design within Reach that will be launching this spring. So that's what I mean about like marketing opportunities where we're just being exposed to an audience that we couldn't reach just on instagram. Mm got it. How exciting congrats, love you. What does your Team Look Like Today? And where is the business in, you know, early 2021. Yeah, the team were about eight people now and we're split between upstate New York and the city. And then of course, all of our artisan partners are all throughout latin America. We are hiring for two pretty big rolls right now a production manager, so we can really focus on production and supply chain management and making a sustainability roadmap For the rest of 2021 2022.
00:19:29Edit Um, and then in operations coordinator. So someone more on like the financial side? Mm hmm. When you say sustainability roadmap, what does that mean? And how does that translate into the business? Yeah, that's a good question. So we, you know, we're at this point I think where we work in so many different places in so many different capacities in terms of how we produce our products. That in say in peru for instance, like we transition to all organic cotton and we're able to really tell that story and explain how we did it whereas in Mexico, we're not there yet. So I would love to be able to transition our supply chain all the way to organic to really kind of figuring out what that needs because it's not just like okay, like we were buying cotton from someplace else. Like we need to find it and then figure out how to make sure that we're getting the same colors that we had before and that the quality is the same.
00:20:32Edit So like really mapping out how to go from okay, we want to make this improvement to how are we going to do it? Is that at the artist in group level? Is that at the product level, country level? Like how what's the plan and how will we make that happen? Mm It sounds like a really unique set of challenges that you have to kind of steer and problem solve to be able to keep that level of standard that you offer and quality. Yeah, I'm also wondering when you're growing this business and as you continue to grow our, their challenges that you face with scaling in terms of, you know, do you kind of outgrow and artisan and be like, okay we're not out growers in, you need to move on from them but you need to find new artisans to add in the mix to keep being able to keep up with the demand and the orders. Yeah. So like there's like two ways for me to approach this answer. I'm sorry, feel afraid to choose all the way out.
00:21:35Edit Well, I mean I think there's like two things to consider in scaling. It's like my team here like in upstate new york but then also like literal production scaling and the way that I've kind of approached scaling production has always been consistent orders and just like increasing slowly and consistently instead of massive orders up front or a massive jumps, like being like, hey this is, this is what we're thinking will happen over the next six months over the next year. And it's taken us a while to get to that point where we're like where we have enough foresight to be like, okay, like we need x amount of units this year, like who's going to make this and then talking to each group instead of just reacting to the order volume coming in. So I think it's a bit of both. That's like, you know, working with our partners to be like this is what we need, like how can we support you to scale with us and then also seeking out additional artisan groups to work with And then there's the team side of making sure that there's enough of us here to do the work to grow, right?
00:22:54Edit And I imagine like forecasting would be really important to be on top of that historical data and projections looking to the future. Yeah, absolutely. I like can get a little caught up in the weeds I think with forecasting and like thinking ahead because I'm like, I like to refer to it as like being stuck in a tunnel of like zooming in and zooming out where I'm like getting really granular and then I'm like, how does this affect everything else? And then like getting really granular again. Um but that that like forecasting and having data to refer back to is so so important. Mm Yeah. I bet. I totally imagine for anyone tuning into this episode, is there anything that you wish your younger self knew when starting out building this business that might help other people who are kind of early on in the journey and just getting started now? I think really like find your community has been really helpful for me. Like finding the people that I can turn to when I need support or I need help and also knowing about like creativity isn't the only thing that will drive the business forward that you need a good foundation, an organization and understanding of the numbers and as soon as you can get that understanding the better off you'll be.
00:24:19Edit Did it take you a while to figure out that kind of thing Or do you think it happened for you quite early? It took me a while to like fit all the pieces together. But in terms of like getting granular number, understanding like that did come fairly early because it had to because I was like, you know, figuring it all out. But it did take me a little bit to fully understand it and understand it enough to really share that information to my team and empower my team with that information as well? Mm hmm totally. And in a similar kind of space, what would your key advice be for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business. That would be like asking questions and getting support and talking to other people who have done it. That was really helpful for me. Was was that outreach and connection mm for you when you were doing like outreach and and connecting with people.
00:25:24Edit Were you just like blind contacting people or did you kind of ask for introductions or how did it work? What did that look like for you? Yeah, I was kind of blindly reaching out which in hindsight is shocking to me because I'm an extremely shy person. I'm like I'm not very bold. So that feels kind of bold in hindsight. I also like I had some friends who had started businesses but more so unlike the agency side type things to kind of like picking their brains about like how they did it. Yeah, getting those pearls of wisdom people around you. I love that we are up to the six quick questions part of the episode, some of the things we may have touched on, but I always do this at the end of every episode. Question number one is, what's your, why, Why do you do what you do? Some days it's harder. But I think like overarching my goal with Minnow is always to use business to do good and whether that's like creating something that's beautiful or creating something that's made fairly and just using business as a platform to be better people and create a community around that.
00:26:41Edit Yeah, I so agree with that, having that meaningful work to drive you forward versus just doing something for the sake of doing it. Question number two is, what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that made your business pop? I think I kind of touched on this a bit earlier to that, like I don't really think there was one like, I don't know, maybe maybe that happens for some businesses, I think for us that's like a little bit of a misconception because there isn't or there wasn't like a thing that happened overnight, like it's been like a slow built over time and like there are moments like we had some really exciting press things and I was like, oh this is amazing. But I don't know if that necessarily was like the thing that propelled us forward. So for us for now our marketing is, is really focused on just like telling stories and I'm focusing on how to tell real stories.
00:27:44Edit I love that Question. Number three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What kinds of things are you reading or listening to or subscribing to that? Others would benefit from hearing from? Well I don't hang out anywhere now currently. Besides my house. I honestly like the thing that I think makes me smarter is talking to other business owners and like making those connections and learning from the people that I know I listen to some podcasts. There's one that I always like to refer back to. It's how I built this but specifically the one with Eileen Fisher Because I think just the way she You know, talks about how she built her business and how humble she is in. That is really inspiring. And I've also been reading this book Quiet which is about the difference between how introverts and extroverts lead and being an introvert.
00:28:46Edit It's been really helpful to understand a different kind of leadership. Mm That sounds awesome. I'm going to link both of those in the show notes For anyone who's interested in checking them out. Question Number four is how do you win the day? What are your am or PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and successful and motivated. Well I try to stretch every morning. Um, I'm also unfortunately very addicted to caffeine. So I have to have coffee within like an hour of waking up, otherwise you don't want to be near me. I've also been, this isn't really like a beginning or end of day thing, but I've been trying to really limit the amount of meetings I have in a day because especially with like a lot of our team is a bit remote now. So I found myself just on zoom calls For like 6-8 hours a day and then I couldn't actually do work. So I'm trying to set limits on how many I can handle in a day and then make monday's typically the day where I don't have anything scheduled or just like one thing is scheduled.
00:30:00Edit Yeah. And then at night I try to paint every day. That's been a really grounding practice. Mm I feel like I've also been dreaming of painting for that kind of calm activity that is not attached to a screen and it's using my hands versus like, I mean you obviously use your hands with your screen as well, but you know using your fingers to type and stuff. Doing something else. I need to get into that question number five is if you only had one $1,000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? I would spend it on my team or and or my arts and partners. Yeah, I would absolutely go go to them. Amazing. And last question question # six is how do you deal with failure? What is your mindset and approach when things don't go to plan? I guess I've evolved a lot with how I deal with failure.
00:31:04Edit It's always been a struggle for me and I used to be the kind of person that was like very secretive about my goals because if nobody knew that no one would know that I failed. Can't really do that anymore since I have a team and we always have, you know, shared goals and things that we're working towards and I think that now as a leader, I kind of have to embrace failure because I have to normalize it for myself and also for my team to create an environment where it's okay to fail or it's okay to make a mistake and then just you know, keep going publicize those goals, put them out there no secrets. Yeah. Ah Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to be on female startup club today and for sharing your journey with Mina and what you've been creating. I've loved chatting with you.